"The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas." - Linus Pauling
I've written several times about how one of the best pieces of professional advice I've ever received--independently from several different, very successful people--is to write and send out a lot of papers. To review, my first couple years out I was having a really hard time publishing. I published a very short reply piece my first year out of grad school, but that was all--and I mostly spent my days slaving away over a couple of pieces from my dissertation, which kept getting rejected (though oftentimes with encouraging reviewer comments). I felt like I was treading water. Research was a slog, I wasn't having fun, and again, I wasn't getting the results I wanted. So, I asked several people I knew--very, very successful people--what their secret was...and they all independently said the same thing: they write and send out a lot of papers. Their rationale was simple. It was:
- Given that the average journal acceptance rate is somewhere around 10%, odds alone dictate that you have to have 10 pieces under review at a given time to expect one acceptance, and
- You never know which ideas/arguments/papers will "click" with reviewers, and which won't.
The more I've gone along in my career--and heard about others' experiences--the more I've come to appreciate (2). Even some of the best, most influential papers in philosophy bounced around at journals for years before finding sympathetic reviewers. Even if a paper is very, very good, the peer-review process is a crap-shoot.
Anyway, almost from the very moment I started taking their advice, everything turned around. I wrote up ideas/arguments into paper form as they came to me. I sent them to conferences to test the waters, and sometimes, if I felt particularly confident, immediately to journals. Research not only became fun again--exploring new ideas weekly is a lot more fun than stressing over articles you've been working on for months and years; I began to publish, and publish a lot--and, for the most part, publish on things I'm proud of.
Another thing that seems much clearer to me now is that there are seriously diminishing returns on the good that time spent "polishing" old papers can do. There is a saying, "You can't turn a turd into gold." Conversely, gold, as far as I know, can't be turned into a turd. ;) On the one hand, if a paper idea is any good, and you are thinking about it at all clearly, you should be able to write it up relatively quickly. On the other hand, if a paper idea is awful, you should also be able to write it up quickly. Finally, if a paper idea is good but you don't have it clear in your mind, you shouldn't waste your time writing on it just yet. Just keep it in the back of your mind until you get clearer on it. As such, whatever you choose to write on, you should be able to write it up quickly and move onto the next.
Finally, writing up lots of stuff is excellent practice in a number of respects. Getting stuck futzing around on a paper you've been working on for months or years is, in my experience, really stultifying. Writing up new ideas constantly is great practice for (A) getting ideas out of your head and onto paper, (B) working out problems on paper, (C) improving your writing, and (D) philosophical reasoning more broadly (insofar as, when you write, you force yourself to raise, consider, and reply to objections to your arguments).
Anyway, maybe this approach--of producing lots of new stuff all the time--won't work for everyone. However, I read a lot of biographies of famous scientists, philosophers, etc., and it is a common theme. Almost all of the people I read about produced a lot of work...a lot of which never saw the light of day. In any case, if you're having trouble publishing, I advocate trying it. When you're having trouble, one good thing to do is try what other successful people do...and again, "overproducing" is a clear theme I've come across both in biographies and successful people I've sought tips from.
To give you an idea of just how much I "overproduce", I counted up the number of full, unique papers I've written over the past 6 years. I count 41, only thirteen of which ended up published. In other words, I wrote an average of seven papers a year, with only a 31.7% peer-review publication rate. Should I be embarrassed by this? I don't think so. Lebron James, arguably the best basketball player in the world, sunk only 622 baskets in NBA regular-season games last year out of 1492 shots. Are those the only shots he took? Of course not. James took thousands of additional shots purely as practice. Many of them were probably "garbage" shots. But they all served a purpose. They were all practice. And I look at my research similarly. I think some of my unpublished papers are good, and I know some of them are awful. Writing them all, however, has served important purposes. They have given me practice: practice writing, practice developing new ideas, practice arguing, and practice figuring out which ideas/arguments are worthwhile, and which are not. The way I see it, the 28 articles I wrote but never published are not failures or a waste of time. They are successes, and time well spent.